The reuse of syringes is a major way that diseases such as HIV are transmitted, with the World Health Organization estimating that in 2010 alone around 33,800 people were infected with HIV and 1.7 million with hepatitis B through the reuse of syringes.
Because of this, WHO has issued a new policy urging every nation to switch to the use of "smart" syringes that can only be used once. The syringes have a metal clip preventing the plunger from being pulled back after the syringes were used, or otherwise having a weak spot in which the plunger will break if a reuse is attempted.
The goal is not only that people themselves will not use standard syringes that can be reused, but also that syringe manufacturers will feel pressured by the new policy to manufacture smart syringes.
"The WHO's global policy has been a massive step forward because now we're able to say to manufacturers: 'Number one, you've got to do it; number two, you've got to do it otherwise you look like you're negative; and number three, you've got to do it because that's the only product being paid for by the international donors," said Marc Koska, founder of Star Syringe, the company that invented the syringes, in an interview with Motherboard.
There are a number of reasons that people are reusing syringes in the first place. These include lack of awareness of possible infection dangers from reuse, limited resources, and corruption that affects the supply of syringes in developing countries.
The smart syringes themselves include a few key parts that prevent reuse. While standard syringes can be moved up and down without problems, a smart syringe includes a small valve mechanism that is molded into the front of the plunger, with a small ring inside the barrel. Once the plunger is pushed down, the two parts lock together, causing the plunger to snap in half if any extra force is applied.
A number of countries are getting behind the project. Egypt, Uganda and India have already expressed interest in switching to smart syringes as soon as possible.
The technology itself is primarily geared toward the developing world, where syringe reuse is more common than the developed world, partly due to limited resources, and while demand has increased since the WHO's announced policy, at present the supply cannot meet the demand.
The expanded use of these syringes won't come without its challenges, however. For example, the companies making these new syringes are so far much smaller than the large pharmaceutical companies that are making traditional syringes and which face costs in retooling supply chains. Larger companies have a corresponding larger reach with their syringes than the few small companies now manufacturing smart syringes, so unless they feel pressured to switch, standard syringes will continue to be the norm.